Meredith came to on a cold, hard floor.
She groaned as she pulled herself up. Her head ached and when she probed gingerly under her hair, she felt a lump the size of an egg. Terrific.
She glanced around. She was in a large octagonal room, four sides of which were cream-coloured brick. The other four were of glass and she could see nothing but darkness beyond. There was a certain unfinished look about the room, unfurnished as it was, and she could smell fresh paint and turpentine.
She turned and froze at the sight of a pair of crimson eyes looking through the window at her. Quick as a flash, the eyes were gone and she was left with the impression of a snakelike body with enormous wings slipping through the night.
The door to her left opened with a sharp crack. Meredith turned and froze again.
It was the Darkness.
There were a lot of rumours about what the Darkness truly looked like. No one ever knew for sure because those who saw him up close tended to wind up dead. Most of the time, the clearest impression of him was of something moving through, well, darkness.
And here she was, seeing him for the first time under the bright shining radiance of an electric light.
Well. Lucky her.
He was very tall and very thin. Unsurprisingly, his skin, hair and clothes were all as black as ink, as dark as night. His features were too sharp and angular to be considered handsome, but there was no doubt about it, there was something about the Darkness which fascinated and repelled at the same time.
And his eyes – his eyes were strange. Ordinary eyes reflected light. His didn’t. His were full of shadows, shifting and dancing like dervishes across the landscape of his eyes, dulling all colour and light. She found she couldn’t look away – she was lost in the shadows, drifting and gliding like dust storms –
With an effort, Meredith jerked her gaze away. She tried to look at him without looking into his eyes. There were black leather cords around his throat and wrists, fashioned with elaborate knots that drew her attention almost as much as his eyes did. Knots which turned and twisted endlessly and could fascinate a body with one look, daring one to look closer and follow the twists to see if they could unravel them …
Some instinct of self-preservation pulled Meredith back. Her eyes slid past the braided cords to his hands. They were elegant hands with long, shapely fingers. Artistic fingers, she thought. An artist of death.
An artist of death who didn’t appear to be carrying any weapons. Perhaps the weapons were hidden about his person. Perhaps he killed with his elegant bare hands. Or his strange eyes. Or just by hypnotising his victims with the endless knots of his ornamentation.
Why did he seem so familiar? Why did she have the feeling she had seen those eyes before?
“Have we met?” she asked without thinking.
He did not answer.
Meredith shook her head. “I feel like I’ve seen you –” she stopped just before she said the words at a ball. Why on earth would she have seen him at a ball? She didn’t go to balls. She frowned, staring sharply at him.
He did not answer, nor did he allow her to further ponder the mystery. “If you would follow me, please.” His voice was as dark as the rest of him, with a certain decisive swiftness that cut as sharply as a mamluk’s scimitar.
There was a time to ask questions and this wasn’t one of them. Meredith went with him. At least he’d said please.
They went down a long hallway lit by low hanging glass lanterns, turning down several sharp corners before coming to a pair of ironwood doors. The Darkness parted the doors and gestured to her to enter. Meredith stepped through, and he followed after her.
She found herself before the Queen Bee and her court.
They were waiting for her in a large room. The walls were covered with rich glossy tapestries depicting repetitive motifs, elaborate arabesques in gold and silver threads woven against cinnamon and burgundy velvet backgrounds. The floor was white marble and the ceiling was buttressed with thick ironwork pillars. Light spilled from an enormous gold chandelier overhead.
Meredith stiffened at the magic in the room, thick and cloying like an overpowering fragrance. There were at least two dozen people present and they were all possessed of some strong magic or other. They stood or sat as still as statues with their heads turned to look at her.
She looked past the statue-people and saw the Queen Bee.
She saw a gigantic spider with eight long arms casting monstrous shadows in the buttery chandelier light. She saw a woman of a certain age, dressed in an embroidered velvet gown shot through with silk and cut low over the breasts, a white neck ruff at her throat, her powdered face surmounted by a metallic headdress and her lips pursed, with the lower painted dark and the upper painted pale.
She saw a colourless goddess sheathed in draperies of pale chiffon and silk with a multitude of gold necklaces covering her breasts. She saw a shift of a vampiric face, grinning slyly at her. She saw an old hag in rags with shaggy grey hair and a twisted ankle, she saw the ever-shifting golden scales of a serpent’s body and a young child in a raggedy blue dress with claws for feet, her hair falling about her shoulders in burnished gold curls and a shepherd’s crook for a hand.
She saw the Queen Bee.
“Meredith Schoxaneur,” the Queen Bee drawled. “Do you know who I am?”
Therein lay the catch. How did one address the Queen Bee? Everyone knew her as the Queen Bee, but was it something one actually called her to her face?
The Queen Bee had a name. It was a mark of how powerful she was that everyone actually knew that name and yet no one had ever tried to use it against her.
“I do, Fatimah,” Meredith said.
A buzz went around the room, thrilling with shock, horror, and ghoulish excitement.
The Queen Bee studied Meredith as she waited for the buzz to die down. “So you would call me by my name.” Her voice held a slight inflection of curiosity, nothing else. “Interesting.”
Meredith shrugged. “You know my name, I know yours. At least we both know where we stand.”
A tiny dark-pale smile. “You are a brave girl, Meredith Schoxaneur.”
Meredith could feel the Darkness beside her, ready to kill or maim at the drop of a hat. She felt like Alice in Wonderland, bewildered and befuddled, facing the Red Queen. She felt – oh, for fuck’s sake, you’re on the brink of death, can’t you feel anything other than a fearful numbness?
But maybe fearful numbness was better than hysteria.
The Queen Bee raised her voice. “Clear the room!”
In seconds, the room was cleared. No one was left except Meredith, the Queen Bee and the Darkness.
“Ah,” the Queen Bee crooned. “Is this not better, Meredith Schoxaneur? Do you feel less – encumbered – by all that magic that must be exciting your blood?”
Meredith read her meaning loud and clear. The Queen Bee knew she was a Wild One. Of course she did. What other reason would she have for summoning her?
But Meredith didn’t feel like a Wild One. She didn’t feel Wild.
Why couldn’t she feel anything?
“Meredith Schoxaneur. Do you know why I have come to Berninski?”
Meredith shook her head.
The Queen Bee laughed. “It is simple, my dear. I have come to this town” – she pointed a finger, a dirty child’s finger, a long black tentacle, a colourful Mandarin nail at Meredith – “because of you.”
Meredith blanched. But she hid it well. She hoped.
The Queen Bee chuckled. “Does that surprise you? Do you wonder how I’ve found you out, a rogue Wild One, an unregistered Wild One?” She paused. “Well, it’s quite simple, my dear. I was informed … by a certain magician who goes by the name of Charlotte Amelia Adela Berhansen nee Adair.”
“Yes.” The Queen Bee nodded. “The dear lady is almost at her wits’ end. Her youngest son has grown powerful beyond her control and is hopelessly attracted to a charming, dangerous Wild One. She has tried every means of keeping them apart, but to no effect. The young can be so foolhardy. So what is the poor woman to do? She comes to me. She tells me about this unregistered Wild One. She knows I have a penchant for Wild Ones. I like to … collect … them.
“You must be wondering what I want with you. What I do with … Wild Ones.” Another dark-pale smile. “Well, Meredith Schoxaneur, I would like, for one, to see what you can do.”
The Darkness turned and extended a photo toward Meredith. Bemused, she took the photo and looked at it.
“Kill him for me.” The Queen Bee’s voice was soft and sweet, beguiling as a young girl’s. “Kill him, and I will see to it that you remain untouchable for the rest of your life.”
Meredith looked up. “And if I don’t?”
The Queen Bee smiled. “I think you know the answer to that.”
The threat hung unspoken in the air.
Meredith chewed her lip thoughtfully. “Is that all?”
The Queen chuckled. “You don’t take long to make up your mind. Frankly, I am pleased. Yes, that is all – for now.”
Meredith nodded. She started to leave, but the Queen Bee called her back. “Meredith Schoxaneur.”
“You have not asked me for the name of your quarry nor where you can find him.”
Meredith shrugged. “I’m sure I won’t have any trouble sniffing him out on my own.”
“Confident girl.” The Queen Bee nodded. “Very well. I expect news of your success soon.”
Meredith followed the Darkness out of the room. She didn’t give the picture in her hand another look. All it had taken was just one glimpse to recognise that oh-so-familiar face.
Go back to Chapter Nineteen
New to A Reason for Being? Start at Chapter One.